40 at 40: Kenny Robinson, godfather of Canadian comedy

In our series of 40 memorable covers from 40 years, the stand-up and producer looks back on creating one of the first safe spaces for non-white comics

Last year, Kenny Robinson – often called the Godfather of Canadian comedy – marked the 25th anniversary of his Nubian show, which helped kickstart the careers of Black and POC comics like Russell Peters, Jean Paul, Keith Pedro and Dana Alexander.

He marked the occasion with a CD release, Kenny Robinson’s Nubian Comedy Revue: The Next 25, and before the pandemic’s second wave he was hoping to follow it up with a Nubian Queens Of Comedy album featuring all female comics and hosted by Keesha Brownie.

But back in July of 1993, when NOW’s Daryl Jung first put him on the cover, he was a rising stand-up himself, making the transition from raunchy sex-related material to more political stuff. Five years later, he was on the cover again, making him one of the couple dozen artists to have graced the cover more than once.

“I was one of the first comics to get that NOW cover, and I definitely felt like I was a player in the game, although I thought my rate would go up, and it didn’t,” laughs Robinson, 28 years later.

“Getting that cover meant a lot to comics. If we got a good review, we’d want to get it tattooed on our foreheads so our moms could be proud, so the cheerleader who rejected us could second-guess herself, and so that club owner who said, ‘I don’t ever want you in our club’ could read it.”

Some of the same issues he discussed back then – risqué material, anti-Black racism (this was the year after the Rodney King riots in L.A.) – are as relevant as ever today.

“It’s so funny that Queen’s University banned me from performing comedy there, and now my daughter is going to go to school there for public administration,” he says. “They also banned Chris Rock, Tim Steeves and Mike Wilmot.”

Things have changed in some respects since then, he admits. “The goal posts have been moved,” is how he puts it.

“I was once pistol-whipped because of my language, and then I suddenly found myself presenting a Gemini Award to Jason Rouse for his Comedy NOW special,” he says. “I think what was considered profane suddenly changed. People were going after comics like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. Kinison died, but I would love to have seen him react to 9/11. And now Dice is playing Lady Gaga’s dad and being considered for acting awards. Look at Ice-T. He’s played a cop on TV for how long now? And at one point he was a cop killer.”

Robinson has always been a great spotter of talent. He recalls seeing comics like Chris Robinson, Aisha Brown and Hoodo Hersi early on.

“I remember I told Hoodo, ‘You’ve got a voice that needs to be heard.’ Some people make it very easy to see the talent they have.”

In 2001, a few years after Robinson’s second NOW cover, he earned his own CTV show, After Hours With Kenny Robinson. Bell Media had taken over CTV just as they went into production, and they were cancelling shows and firing people. The series lasted one season.

“That show should still be on,” he says. “We were so far ahead of the game. We featured Kevin Hart doing sketch comedy for the first time on that show. It was the first time Leslie Jones ever did sketch. To this day, people still ask about the Phat Azz Dancers.”

The comedy climate may have changed over the years, but Robinson has changed with it. He won’t book comics who do a lot of rape jokes, or who’s heavy on the homophobia.

When I bring up the concept of “safe spaces” – something unheard of two decades ago – he’s open and philosophical.

“To some extent, the Nubian show was a safe space,” he says, “especially when you think about how many times comics of colour had to go in front of predominantly white crowds and wonder how whites were going to respond to their material or their subject matter, or just even be turned off by their race.”

One thing that he hasn’t changed his mind about, however, is the way comics present themselves onstage. He doesn’t want a Nubian headliner – or someone showcasing for the Just for Laughs feestival – to wear shorts.

Whenever I’ve seen Robinson perform, he’s always stylishly outfitted. Which is why his laidback appearance on the NOW cover surprised me.

“We did the cover shoot at Riverdale Park and I wanted to look appropriate,” he says.

His sartorial sensitivity came about after reading Dick Gregory’s memoir.

“Gregory spent a lot of money on his wardrobe because he said some people might only get to go out once or twice a month, and a comic might be the biggest celebrity they saw,” he says. “So you owe it to your audience to look like a star. That’s always stuck with me.”

– Glenn Sumi

Below is Daryl Jung’s Robinson cover feature, Political Riffing Retains The Rage, republished from NOW’s July 29, 1993 issue.

Canada’s sultan of smut moves his guerrilla comedy toward higher political ground

BUFFALO – Toronto comic Kenny Robinson is looking way out of place lurking at the back of the Comix Cafe – “Western New York’s most fun place to be!” – buried in the banality of the concrete-intensive Colvin-Eggert strip mall just off Interstate 290.

Ensconced in this stark, cavernous 50s rec room, he’s squirming through the lame meanderings of the evening’s unidentified host. A bizarre crossbreed of a nerd and a Wall Street lawyer, the guy is hawking two-pound, nine-by-three “Slammer” sandwiches – take one bite, if you don’t like it, it’s free – and three-foot glasses of beer.

But Robinson, the sultan of smut, consummate outsider and big man in a thin man’s world, is preoccupied. Last week his car was robbed, and yesterday he lost $650 worth of wallet. He’s having disturbing visions of himself as a huge Mr. Bill, and his gut ain’t been feeling too shit-hot, either.

To make matters worse, his opening act – a schoolteacher from Rochester – is proving dangerously capable of putting the entire roomful of white, escape-hungry, middle-class Americans into a deep sleep.

The crowd’s a good size, but startlingly silent. As his set draws near, Robinson paces like a big black cat past the cheap caricatures of Charlie Chaplin, growling quietly to himself.

“Maybe I can wake this fuckin’ place up!” he cackles as he lumbers toward the stage like he can’t get up there quick enough. And lo and behold, with a wry twinkle in his piercing eyes, he rears back and lets loose with such a ballistic barrage that the audience makes like a Lazarus convention.

It’s vintage Robinson – a visceral, wildly profane comedic offensive that strikes at all manner of social neuroses and political idiocies – as blue as the blood in your veins and as fast as a stealth bomber.

He rants about a piece of tissue on his girlfriend’s anus as intensely as he does about the horrors of Rodney King, and he’s achingly adroit at both.

As he flails his arms and glowers at the front row, a patriotic drunk takes the stage threateningly, offended by a scathing bit about cross burnings in Iowa.

Some women wince visibly at graphic depictions of a cavalcade of sexual acts. It’s hilarious, gritty stuff – in your face and without compromise – often disturbing, even dangerous.

But Robinson has built a career taking chances, testing the limits of taste as audiences cry for more. He’s faced an army of racist psychos and uptight club owners, paying the price for maintaining his integrity in the process.

Offensive action

“Sometimes people hear the language or the politics and they say, ‘Oh, I’m offended,'” sneers the sweating, post-show Robinson next door at Rob’s Place Sports Bar, at this point looking forward to headlining at home at Yuk Yuk’s Uptown through the weekend.

“And I say, ‘Well, you should be. I’m offended by almost everything I fucking see on the news every day!’ So if they’re offended, that’s good. At least I touched some nerve in them, as opposed to some Milquetoast guy who leaves them with nothing in their heads.

“Social commentary is what I have the biggest lust for now. I know a lot of people aren’t coming down to clubs to hear that – I don’t know if that’s because people are getting lethargic about things, or they aren’t as well-read, or what.

“So I always wonder if it’s out of date for me to do, say, stuff on the L.A. riots. It was more than a year ago. But it was a huge piece of history. How often do you see a city go up in smoke and normal people lose their minds for three days of total chaos? It can’t be outdated. Those things never change.”

It’s not like this is the “new” Robinson talking, even though he concedes that what has gained him the most notoriety up to now has been his full-tilt boogie, euphemism-free graphic sex rap – the “nasty” material that’s packed his houses and made shots at network TV elusive for nine years.

Always a student of comedy, the son of a Chicago song-and-dance man got his start doing Bogart impressions at his hometown of Winnipeg’s Royal Albert Arms. With a background in theatre, he found quick success and moved to the boards of Chicago.

After a year Stateside he checked out Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto and decided it was the perfect place to cut his teeth. He’s been haunting the joint ever since.

Robinson found the “seed” of his material’s ultimate essence in his contempt for the safe, middle-class, who-cares kind of material of the majority of the comics he observed on the circuit. An initially significant leap in his development, he admits, was a commitment to “out-shocking everyone.”

Enter comic impresario Mark Breslin, who encouraged him to push the edge of what was acceptable while also making full use of his considerable imagination and street wisdom.

It didn’t take long for Robinson to realize that he could, indeed, take it all much further, but with a difference – that even the most hardcore blue stuff could explode with wit and substance.

“I knew that I wanted to be as close to the Richard Pryor influence as possible,” he says. “That was the kind of sound and effect I wanted to have. I’d hear guys who thought they were being risqué. But I knew I could take it way beyond that.

“But most of all I wanted to get as close to complete honesty as possible by just saying what I felt and what I truly thought was funny. In order for me to say these things there had to be a big chunk of truth behind them.”

With Breslin in his corner, Robinson embarked on a rocky life on the road, which he likens to going 15 rounds and taking too many shots to the head. But it hasn’t been without its triumphs – this year alone he’s heated up rooms opening for Chris Rock and Tommy Chong.

“Sometimes I think I might’ve been the prototype for what Mark wanted a complete comic to be. Years later I suggested to him that maybe he wasn’t doing me a favour, letting me grow wild like a weed. I’d go to other clubs and circuits in the States and Canada, and they’d say, ‘Hey, you’re funny, but we just can’t have you saying those things here.’

“But it was still what made me different from the majority, and I owe that to him. Now that I’m trying to move away from the high sexual content, it’s a matter of making it all funnier.”

Robinson says his political obsessions were always bubbling – it just took time for them to come to the forefront. It wasn’t until 89 at Montreal’s Just for Laughs fest that he glimpsed his calling away from hard-core raunch, when big money men like Woody Allen manager Charles Joffe and festival honcho Andy Nulman expressed reservations about the marketability of his sex-charged act.

So, like the class clown whom teachers feel could be a leader if he’d only apply himself, Robinson gradually switched emphasis from jokes about birth control and oral sex to bits on gun control and capital punishment.

Aggressive comedy

“To me, comedy is aggressive,” he explains. “There was a period when people were really down on my act, saying it was misogynist, racist and sexist.

“But I look at comedy as a vehicle to attack things like racism, homophobia and sexual violence. It’s still fun, because I can pick up on things that are wrong and smash away at the hypocrisy. The goal is still to rock the house.”

And that he does – so much so that it’s hard to believe that his raving, perverse stage persona gives way so easily to the pussycat that is the real Robinson. His anger and outrage are real, but he only lets the demons come out in front of unsuspecting onlookers.

“The anger and the rage is the well that I draw from,” he says. “The reason why I maybe haven’t had the exposure I want is because I work a harder edge. I work blue. I don’t play around. I’m not the safe, suburban boy-next-door comic. I go out of my way to find controversy and things everybody else avoids.

“Everybody has a different reason for getting into comedy, and my reasons are obviously different than most people’s. But I’m always going to deal with things I have a feeling for. I take a lot of pride in the material I do. People who don’t walk out of my show love what I do. In any case, people never leave my shows indifferent.”

On the horizon is what Robinson calls his “salvation – a one-man show centred exclusively on race issues, replete with a Showboat takeoff and a strong dose of character acting. It’s all born out of his unique perspective of marginality as a mulatto American living in Canada.

“People wonder, because I’m half black and half white, why I’m so pro-black. I have to explain to them that because of the nature of racism the label is already on me. People don’t say, ‘There goes that half Norwegian guy!’

“I’ve been chased out of biker bars and been called a nigger. The fact that I am light-skinned doesn’t mean I’m less vulnerable than someone who is darker.

“There’s a load of things I can go after and bring out the humour – and therefore the humanity – in them. By doing that, maybe I can tap some anger and create an understanding at the same time.”

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.


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